The ECG Model Isn’t Bad For Competitive Games Just Because Your Favorite Competitive ECGs Failed

I have noticed an unhealthy and biased opinion that is prominent among some industry veterans, especially retailers who have been burned by Fantasy Flight Games (FFG): The ECG model is bad for competitive ECGs because it doesn’t put up the same sales numbers as the most successful CCGs. I will argue that this claim dies the death of a thousand qualifications and encourages developers to pursue the inferior CCG business model. Before we do this, however, we need to define some terms:

  • CCG – Collectible Card Game. Also known as a TCG. Cards are printed with an artificial rarity and sold in randomized lots known as booster packs, in order to create a gambling experience for the consumer.
  • ECG – Expandable Card game. Cards are printed without artificial rarity and sold in predetermined bundles. ECGs created by Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) are called Living Card Games (LCG). This term is trademarked by FFG and therefore only applies to their product lines. All LCGs are ECGs but only FFG’s ECGs are LCGs.
  • Competitive game – A game that can be played 1v1, with the capability of tournament play.

Now, onto my criticisms of the ECG-skeptic position:

  1. It ignores that some of the best selling games of all time are competitive ECGs. Deckbuilders like Dominion and Star/Hero Realms stand out. The argument that deckbuilders should be removed from the discussion is painfully arbitrary, in my opinion. Perhaps the fact that ECGs succeed better when marketed toward board gamers is evidence that card gamers are stuck in a mindset that only CCGs can be taken seriously.
  2. It ignores that some of the most successful competitive games are non-CCGs. Miniatures wargames like Warhammer 40k are one of the best examples. I have heard the response, “They aren’t relevant because they’re aren’t a card game.” Again, this is an arbitrary qualification. They prove definitely that a game does not need to be a CCG before retailers will care about hosting competitive events.
  3. It ignores that most competitive ECGs have been run by an incompetent company. A book could be written on the questionable design decisions and management missteps of FFG. Since their acquisition by Asmodee, their business model seems to have been, 1) Announce a game at GenCon, 2) Have a strong first year, 3) Fumble the ball, 4) Kill product line, 5) Announce next game.
  4. It ignores that many failed competitive ECGs had significant gameplay issues. Many of the ECGs developed by FFG, for example, have lengthy play times, a strong reliance on tokens (increasing fiddlyness), and a heavier ruleset than MTG. Android: Netrunner is probably the only ECG that FFG ever released that I’d allow to sit on the same shelf as MTG.
  5. It ignores that the vast majority of CCGs are failures. The CCG graveyard is massive. Very few turn a profit and last long enough to leave a legacy in the industry. Many are cash grabs at the outset, with no realistic plan for long-term viability.
  6. It ignores that LGSs do hold events for non-CCGs. Listening to the ECG-skeptic praise CCGs, you’d think that the only organized play or competitive events being held involve CCGs, yet this isn’t true at all. If LGSs can hold events for D&D and miniatures games, why can’t do they do the same for competitive ECGs? (Spoiler: They can, and some do.)
  7. It ignores that LGSs have multiple streams of income. Listening to ECG-skeptics, you’d think that the ultimate business plan of successful LGSs is, “Sell a gambling experience to my customers.” In reality, LGSs understand that they can also make money off of additional product, events, and comestibles. Successful LGSs do many things right, and, much to the amazement of the ECG skeptic, some successful LGSs don’t sell CCGs at all!
  8. It ignores that MTG would have succeeded as an ECG. The CCG mythos is often-times bolstered by pointing at Magic: “This is proof of why you want to be a CCG,” yet it fails to appreciate that Magic succeeded because it is a great game and because it was first to market, not because it was a CCG. I doubt it would have grown to its current size, but I believe that it would have still had a vibrant competitive scene.
  9. It ignores that a successful competitive scene doesn’t need to be huge. Does a game need a Pro Tour and a World Championship with massive prize pools to be a “real” competitive game? Personally, if my LGS advertised a Dice Throne tournament, I’d be there in a heartbeat.
  10. It ignores that retailers can and do sell competitive ECGs when they put in the effort. Legacy’s Allure is a good example of this. The retailers who promoted the game and demoed it to customers saw strong interesting, because it’s a good game!

Again, in order to justify the ECG-skeptic claim, so many qualifications must be added that the claim basically becomes meaningless. That raises the question, what’s the real reason behind the claim? In my experience, some retailers have been burned by FFG and therefore developed a heavy bias against competitive ECGs. While businesses ought to consider how they can take the path of least resistance to turning a profit, I think they need to a more nuanced opinion on the matter so that they don’t automatically discount great new games and so that they don’t continue promoting a model that is antithetical to competitive gaming, not to mention a bad investment most of the time.